Dilemmas of the Consumption Behaviour in the Postcommunist Countries


Jerzy Dietl (1993) ,"Dilemmas of the Consumption Behaviour in the Postcommunist Countries", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 5-17.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 5-17


Jerzy Dietl, University of L=dz, Poland

1. Crucial problems of transformation in the socio-economic system

Poland as the first country in the Soviet bloc, even before the fall of the Berlin wall, entered the path of democracy and reform of the socio-economic system. The changes had been preceded by the so-called "Round Table" debates between the communist authorities and the opposition. Their outcome was the democratically elected Higher Chamber of the Parliament, while the Lower Chamber was allowed to consist in 35 per cent of the democratic opposition. Favourable external circumstances allowed to take over the power by the Government having its roots in Solidarity. The changes in the legal, political, social and economic systems were commenced.

The "Big Band" was a right choice, as it was impossible to adopt the solution of "small steps" in the situation of hyperinflation. Retail prices were by 740 per cent higher in December 1989 than in December 1988, because the communist government liberalized a part of all prices without introducing other changes in the socio-economic system at the same time.

The Balcerowicz Programme was the first experiment in the economic history of the transformation from a non-market to a market regulation in conditions of hyperinflation, deep disequilibrium, lack of any reserves, and high foreign indebtedness (over 40 billion US dollars).

In principle, short-term goals of the shock therapy were accomplished. There was restored a market equilibrium, which found expression, among others, in eliminating shortages of goods and filling shop shelves with plentiful goods. Decentralization of the economy, liberalization of market entries, foreign trade and prices, as well as a dynamic development of the private sector allowed to adopt a market regulation. For obvious reasons it was restricted by a highly monopolized structure of the market and the absence of capital market. Internal and external stabilization of the local currency was of basic importance. Hyperinflation was checked, although inflation rates continued to be high. A full internal convertibility of the zloty was introduced, with the currency being supported by the stabilization fund established by the Western countries. All those moves necessitated hard constraints in the field of public finance, control of wages in the public sector, and a strict control over the supply of money.

In this way, conditions were created for a transition to structural changes oriented mainly at the development of the private sector, privatization and commercialization of state-owned enterprises, restructuring of industry, demonopolization of the market, expansion of international cooperation and attracting capital from abroad. Unfortunately, structural changes were occurring very slowly encountering various obstacles resulting from recession, social factors, and difficulties connected with changing promptly the legal and institutional structure.

The output declined in the public sector and, to a smaller degree, in the private agriculture. GDP dropped by 11.5 per cent in 1990 and a little less in 1991. The industrial production decreased by 24 and 16 per cent respectively. The population's incomes lowered by ca. 15 per cent in 1990. That trend was, however, checked in 1991. Still it must be said that consumption is too high in relation to GDP, which creates an additional inflationary pressure. Moreover, it proved impossible to pursue the tough money policy without any concessions. As a result of the bargaining of the management of state-owned enterprises and the Government with the trade unions and strikes wages were often raised without any changes in labour productivity.

Transition to market regulation did not release behaviours raising economic effectiveness in state-owned enterprises. They were accustomed to a passive attitude. In the adaptation process they were always encountering only soft budgetary constraints (internal prices detached from the market, easy and partly subsidized credits, grants from the central budget). Demand did not pose any constraint in the economics of shortages. The only hard constraint existed on the side of supply.

State-owned enterprises were unable to meet the challenge of adaptation to the market. A price became an external element, grants were abolished, a realistic interest rate was adopted. With an intensifying competition on the part of the private sector, liberalized foreign trade and smaller demand the production of shoddy goods came across a demand barrier.

Managed by former party bureaucrats, incapacitated by trade unions and employee councils these enterprises found themselves in a difficult situation. At first, they pursued a policy of a monopolist increasing prices and reducing production volume, as well as increasing wages under a pressure of workers even though wage increases were penalized by high taxes. No efforts were made to lower production costs, dismiss redundant employees and improve labour productivity. Obviously, the most important negative external factor was the collapse of export to the former USSR (it dropped by 80% accounting for 50% of the overall export) and the former GDR. Polish factories oriented at this export could hardly be competitive on the Western market. All that resulted in a considerable growth of unemployment accompanied by a large hidden unemployment in industry and small private farms. The restructuring of industry will have to involve the liquidation of a large number of plants. A positive phenomenon is a dynamic expansion of the private sector. Together with the private farming its share in GDP already surpasses 40 per cent.

A deep recession has generated frustration of the society. Unfortunately, the contestation has been stimulated by different political groups, which generally represent group or even individual interests. The Polish paradox lies in the fact that the country which first embarked upon the path of democracy continues to have the communist constitution.

The process of political changes was reversed. After the fall of the Berlin wall there should have been delegalized the communist regulations of the State called the constitution. The so-called "little constitution" was adopted by the Parliament along with the electoral law giving preference to large political groups (today Poland has got the worst electoral law in Europe). The first priority should be new elections to the Parliament, which was not elected in fully democratic manner. Next, a new Constitution should be adopted and only then the presidential elections started.

The fear of political destabilization in Poland, return of hyperinflation, and deep economic recession do not encourage foreign investments, which are a precondition for the modernization of the economy.

The stimulating of entrepreneurship is an indispensable condition for shifting a society's system of values towards individualistic competitive values. That, in turn, will be determining the extent to which socio-economic gaps existing between the postcommunist countries and countries with developed market economies can be diminished, and namely:

- a structural gap resulting from non-market allocation of economic resources and minimization and even disappearance of private ownership;

- a technological gap being a consequence of restricting the individual and social propensity to innovation, and accounting for technological backwardness and non-marked orientation of technology;

- an organizational gap being a result of shortcomings in the infrastructure, and primarily in institutions serving a market economy, which were being destroyed and not created (e.g. institutions of the capital market, communications, economic self-government);

- a social gap, i.e. elimination of social structures necessary for development of a society, in this mainly the middle class; creation of "homo sovieticus"- passive people awaiting assistance from the State; decay of authorities and social models; lack of loyalty towards the State (division into "they" and "we") and in relation to employers;

- an ethical gap - especially in the economic field; what is meant here are not only erosions finding expression in corruption, evasion of taxes, and the so-called !'black" and "grey" markets but also in disappearance of ethical codes.

The above problem poses a challenge going beyond my country. Changes in social awareness, and mainly in economic awareness predetermine the success of the Polish experiment with radical socioeconomic reforms being of an unquestioned importance for the other postcommunist states, including those which emerged through a disintegration of the USSR. Such changes lie in the interest of the OECD states and that not only due to the necessity of the global political and social stabilization but also in the long term due to the possibility of obtaining measurable economic benefits.

Unfortunately, it should be pointed out that a short-term point of view dominates in many initiatives of foreign assistance and economic cooperation. The most important dilemma, in my opinion, lies in the necessity of taking the challenge ensuing not only from the above mentioned gaps and constraints in human and material resources but also and mainly from a rapidly changing environment. Difficulties in the postcommunist states are further aggravated by hard to predict variables resulting from:

- transition from a non-market to market regulation;

- implementation of stabilization programmes (among others a tight money policy curbing of inflation);

- restructuring of economy (among others, privatization, elimination of ineffective enterprises, modernization and creation of economic branches with market orientation);

- unfavourable external conditions (debt burden; collapse of economic cooperation with the former GDR and the USSR - drop in export of 80%; economic recessions in some economically developed countries and necessity of assisting the states which emerged on the territory of the former USSR).

2. Consumption and consumer attitudes and choices in the period of transition from the non-market to the market regulation.

It is an extremely difficult task to outline a common point of departure for all the postcommunist states due to significant differences among these states - both the former satellite states and those which have emerged through disintegration of the Soviet Union.

It could be worthwhile to draw some attention to the basic causes underlying these differences:

- the domination of the totalitarian bolshevik system occurred during different development stages of these countries, their economic structures, social structures, and their different cultural heritage;

- the extent of their isolation in relation to societies of the free world was different;

- with their common characteristic in the form of economics of shortages its scope tended to differ similarly to the assortment of available goods and services; differences could be found in the field of the structure of prices controlled by the .State, which differentiated the structure of consumption and consumer choices;

- the liberalization of the system still at the time of the Soviet domination assumed different forms and encompassed different areas of the socio-economic life;

- the size of the private sector and of the black and grey markets was not uniform.

I think that in spite of the above mentioned concerns about making any generalization an attempt could be made to outline the main differences in the sphere of consumption and consumer behaviours among the societies from the postcommunist countries and those from the economically developed countries with a market orientation. For obvious reasons when formulating any hypotheses I shall be referring mainly to the experience of my country. The most significant and statistically documented difference refers, of course, to the level of consumption, its structure, and thus the population's living standards and its living conditions.

Not questioning these differences I would be cautious, however, in drawing any conclusions concerning differences in the degree to which the needs of households are satisfied basing on the quantified differences in consumption. I am omitting here differences connected with an adequate measurement and international comparisons for countries with different socio-economic systems. Of basic significance here is the "extent of the individual and also social awareness with regard to living standards - life quality". It is my opinion that such awareness was low indeed. The egalitarian distribution of the population's incomes, blockade of information, limited assortment of products, and indoctrination could hardly release the awareness of the scale of pauperization.

Such and no other distribution of incomes caused that low wages collected by almost a half of the population were and still are much higher relatively than wages in the economically developed countries. And although along with the "softening" of the system, the enhanced role of the black and grey markets and the expansion of the private sector (primarily in Hungary and Poland) the polarization of the population's incomes was taking place it was largely of a hidden character.

The entire period of the communist domination favoured the developing of both consumer attitudes and a high consumption propensity. It will not be an easy task to reverse this orientation of the society. Let's look more closely for a moment at this phenomenon and its consequences. The previous system did not create favourable conditions for private investments. Even the private sector (e.g. 80% of farming in Poland) did not display such tendency. The ultimate result was an orientation at a short-term profit earmarked mainly for consumption.

With low incomes the possibilities of making savings by the society were quite limited. There should be mentioned, however, also other factors determining or accounting for an orientation at consumption.

The economics of shortages and the suspended inflation or hyperinflation connected with it were structural phenomena. I 11-advised investment allocations in the industrial sphere due to the absence of the market regulation led to the growth of wages not accompanied by a sufficient supply of consumer goods and services. Persisting shortages accompanied by controlled prices and money surplus were only intensifying a feeling of unsatisfied consumer needs. Moreover, limited possibilities of making consumer choices led to a wrong allocation of products in households. The phenomenon of postponed demand assumed a common character. It could be still added that difficulties connected with purchasing many consumer durable and the housing barrier were restricting considerably the "investing in one's own household" in favour of current consumption including, to large extent, consumption of alcoholic drinks, which were always easily available.

The previous system failed to develop positive social models of consumption. There could be pointed out among others:

- social disintegration accompanied by an almost complete decay of the middle class;

- pauperization of the intelligentsia and descendants of the former proprietary social strata;

- the nomenclature and the representatives of the private sector frequently linked the communist party bureaucracy, who did not constitute any social models;

- the strong but deformed demonstration effect borrowed from the West.

The structure of prices detached from the market gave rise to certain consumer attitudes differing from those characteristic for the societies of the market-economy countries. About 50 per cent of all allocations from the central budget were made for direct or indirect price subsidies. The prices of goods and services were departing to an increasingly bigger degree from the social costs, while demand did not determine the level of prices. Moreover, a significant part of all prices had a social character, for instance, some foodstuffs - bread, mild, etc., flats, books and magazines, medicines, and so on.

The surrealistic pricing system persisted for a period of 50 years accounting for definite consumer choices and habits. Although along with the softening of the system efforts were made to bring the structure of prices closer to their structure in the market - economy countries, those efforts did not yield any bigger results.

It could be also added that the economics of shortages did not promote any rationalization in consumption of products carrying highly subsidized prices. For example, the excessive consumption of electricity and water is not only a result of low prices but also of the lack of meters in households. It is needless to add here that the transition to the structure of prices determined by the market was a real shock for the society.

At this point, it is worth drawing attention to the sphere of social consumption and the State's protective "umbrella". The latter concerned not only social welfare but also the also the already mentioned price subsidies and employment guarantees. The State was ensuring a very broad social protection. The people loyal towards the system lived poor but safe lives. The State was thinking for them and making decisions for them. That resulted in emergence of passive and vindicative attitudes towards the State.

The adaptation process of households was proceeding in the economics of shortages in a completely different way than in the market economies. Hard constraints were encountered mainly on the supply side. The existing demand could not be satisfied as a result of the shortage of goods and their poor assortment. In spite of low incomes budgetary constraints of households were quite soft, because it was difficult to expend the possessed monetary resources. The process of consumer choices and their motives proved to be of minor importance. The search for products, standing in long queues (with different procedures adopted in this case), the sense of success when a desired product was purchased, the purchasing of accepted substitutes, the compulsory substitution and the compulsory substitution and the compulsory purchasing of another product and finally the compulsory savings could all be treated as typical effects in the adaptation process of households.

It should be added that there existed parallely different distribution systems, in which different prices were charged for the same products. Such discrimination of prices was applied by the State in accordance with the principle "all people are equal but some are more equal". The whole effort, innovativeness and cleverness were oriented at finding the product. The access to products being in a short supply was a mark of social status. This superficial and general description of the main differences in relation to the market economies at the time of the transition from the non-market to the market regulation should make it easier, at least I think so, to formulate several hypotheses referring to consumption and consumer behaviours in the postcommunist countries.

3. The process of transition to the market economy and its impact on consumption and consumer attitudes of the population.

In almost all the postcommunist countries, the expected euphoria as a result of regained independence and freedom from the nightmare of the totalitarian and thoughtless system has been replaced by an increasingly stronger disappointment, frustration or a virtual contestation of certain social milieus. The explanation of these phenomena can be found in economic, political and social categories. To my mind, the present living conditions departing considerably from expectations are of primary importance here.

Today, consumption levels in Poland are among the highest in all the postcommunist countries. Taking into account a marked drop in output, a negative economic growth, an inflation rate and a budget deficit it must be concluded that the Polish people consume too much. Vindicative attitudes adopted by various social groups carry a threat of destabilization of the economy and the rebounding of hyperinflation. In 1991, with a further drop in the volume of production and GDP the incomes of the population were not decreased. According to the official statistics they remain at a level only by 12 per cent lower than in 1989. I think, however, that the drop in incomes is lower in the reality.

There should be noted here:

- a more accurate allocation of goods and services in households than it was the case in conditions of the economics of shortages;

- savings of time and efforts ensuing from the eliminating of market shortages and an access to a wide assortment of goods and services both of domestic and foreign origin;

- substantial unregistered and untaxed incomes being a result of a dynamic development of the private sector.

Taking all that into consideration, the costs of the transition to the market economy incurred by the society in their aggregated form have not been too high so far.

I think, however, that a subjective feeling of the society and especially some of its groups is entirely different. That is due to numerous reasons, from among which the most important could be listed here.

The economic awareness of the society, which lived in the economic system based on commands and centralized allocations for over 45 years, is very limited. Anyway, this refers to social groups not only with a low level of education. In order to understand the market mechanisms one must grow up it or with it, and book knowledge will not suffice. The society is susceptible to disinformation, cheap populism and unrealistic promises made generously by various politicians with doubtful ethical and professional qualifications. Of course, the promises made after reaching the positions of power are not and cannot be fulfilled thus intensifying the frustration of the society, lowering the prestige of power. The weak and antagonized Government, Parliament and President seek social support. The puts into motion the mechanism of bargaining posing a threat of softening the tough money policy, of emission of empty money and, consequently, of increasing inflation being, anyway, already very high.

The society does not realize all the time the extent of destruction of the economic potential by the communist system. The people are not sufficiently aware or they have not been made aware to a sufficient degree of its self-destructive characteristic resulting from the allocation of economic resources omitting the market criteria. It is not fully realized that the drop in production and GDP is aimed, to a large extent, at freeing the economy from the burden of its ill-adjustment to requirements of the market. The causes of low living standards under the previous system are frequently sought in the political and social sphere, in the ineffective management and the communist party bureaucracy. It is hard to convince workers and farmers that gigantic factories, coal-mines, steelworks or tiny farms will not be able to survive in conditions of the open market economy.

A major role is played by the apprehension for future living conditions. The already mentioned principle of full employment, as well as the tendency of linking oneself permanently with the place of work and dwelling (generated, among others, by the housing barrier) have developed some kind of passiveness, disbelief in a possibility of improving one's living conditions, and disinclination to change one's occupation. The registered unemployment rate, which anyway does not display a growth trend at present, does not exceed 11 per cent of the work force. Moreover, it sometimes happens that the registered unemployed people collecting unemployment benefits either are employed somewhere unofficially or they run their businesses within the framework of the grey or black market. However, the very fact that unemployment has appeared, the apprehension for losing a job, and also increasingly bigger requirements regarding labour productivity are important for the society.

The main problem is the distribution of unemployment and its hidden forms. The spatial distribution of unemployment is quite differentiated and in some regions it reaches 30 per cent. It is difficult to eliminate these differences due to a low elasticity of labour, and primarily due to the housing barrier. There are such regions in which a factory on the brink of bankruptcy and one requiring a liquidation is the main source employment. It should be added that the restructuring and modernization of industry call for liquidating many big enterprises. It is in these enterprises that Solidarity has its roots. This creates an additional dilemma not mentioning that the ensuing contestation generally concerns employee groups collecting relatively high wages in the past.

A much greater problem is hidden unemployment. It is absolutely necessary to eliminate it as soon as possible. This is often necessitated by the restructuring of enterprises, which should even precede their privatization. The elimination of hidden unemployment, and anyway its considerable reduction, is an indispensable condition to ensure a bigger competitiveness of domestic products, as their costs of production are high in spite of cheap labour.

One of the crucial problems in this fields is that of agriculture. About 30 per cent of the economically active population is involved in farming, and mainly in private farms with an average area of ca. 6 ha. Till recently 60 per cent of peasant families were obtaining incomes from non-agricultural sources as well. The rural population was mainly employed in big industrial plants or on investment projects. Redundancies affected primarily this social group. Simultaneously, demand for labour in agricultural farms declined as a result of the liquidating of economics of shortages. It should be noted that in the past farmers had to spend about 30 per cent of their time on purchasing necessary products and services being in short supply. Moreover, labour was a substitute of various unavailable goods. Finally, a demand barrier appeared in the adaptation process, which results from:

- limited possibilities of competing in foreign markets with heavily subsidized foodstuffs from the EC countries,

- collapse of the Eastern markets, and finally

- competition on the part of imported food.

A drop in incomes of rural households accompanied by the present availability of desirable goods causes a strong frustration. It must be remembered that in the previous system farmers represented the private sector. They were a powerful resistance group in relation to the economic order and, what is most important, their economic interests were protected due to the deficit of food. A paradoxical situation has emerged, and namely a social group, which has been always supporting a market economy, voices in favour of the state intervention and protectionist customs policy today, and treats foreign capital with distrust.

For obvious reasons creating an economic alternative for the rural population is of primary importance. It is a positive phenomenon that in some regions a large share of small business owners derives from rural milieus.

I am giving this example of the rural population to illustrate that large groups of the population representing the private sector are also dissatisfied with the present living conditions. They expected that their living standards would be especially high as result of the transition to the market regulation. Meanwhile, in many cases they have decreased and bankruptcies have taken place. It is worth emphasizing here a somewhat broader problem. The private sector employing not quite 40 per cent of labour during the period of the shock-type reform was operating in completely artificial conditions. The thinking of entrepreneurs and farmers was of a short-term character and it was oriented solely at a profit, which would rather allow to increase consumption than production. Not even the slightest difficulties were encountered in selling goods, while competition was invisible. At the present time, the situation is completely different. Many companies and farms are close to bankruptcy. That is quite a normal process in a market economy, but it comes as some surprise in the postcommunist countries.

I think that a rapid polarization of the population's incomes is of a fundamental importance in the sphere of consumption. This phenomenon is evaluated positively by me, as higher income groups can provide consumption models, stimulate product innovations and new product development, and create a market for more expensive and high quality products and services. Simultaneously, however, social divisions tend to intensify. It could be added, moreover, that in the period of transformations in the economy big money can often be made not always in legal ways. It is my opinion that social tensions having their roots in an unequal distribution of incomes, and what is especially important - in a completely different than previously distribution of incomes, may arise in the immediate future. A major factor here will be frustration ensuing from an inability to purchase products, which although available today are inaccessible for a large part of the population.

It is worth pointing out that the polarization of incomes, particularly among the young generation, releases an independence in making decisions, an inclination to take risk, and a demand for such type of education which can be useful in the future successful professional career. There is no doubt that we can already observe in Poland a marked stimulation of the spirit of entrepreneurship.

On the other hand, an unfavourable phenomenon is a constant drop in relative incomes paid from the central and local budgets (mainly social welfare). This creates a favourable ground for corruption and causes an outflow of the most valuable employees. The most critical situation prevails in the sectors of education, science, and health service. In my opinion, the so-called budgetary sphere of employment (social welfare) is ripe for radical changes.

Among the most important of them seem to be:

- reversing the present tendency towards centralism and expansion of bureaucracy;

- restructuring consisting in economizing the social services sphere, including reduction of employment size in many areas;

- reducing the protective functions of the State through introducing partial payments for certain services such as e.g. the state academic education;

- commercializing and privatizing partly social services, their demonopolization accompanied by stimulation of competition.

I think that such solutions would allow to enhance the social prestige of these employee groups and their incomes. A further polarization of income will take place in the future.

Still, it seems to me that many negative characteristics of this phenomenon will have to be appraised positively, because a return to a market economy and a necessity of releasing the spirit of entrepreneurship require a strong material motivation. That is why I am against an excessive tax progression at this stage (at present the maximum rate of income tax amounts to 40%).

The already mentioned high social propensity to consume, postponed demand and accumulation of unsatisfied needs over several decades all create an extremely absorptive market. Anyway, a wide discussion on this issue is already under way in Poland. The supporters of the Keynesian Theory of Acceleration Principle claim that growth of consumption and wages will pave the way for a faster transition to a positive economic growth, as the present economic slump (this term is more appropriate than "recession", as the present destruction is not a consequence of a business cycle) is due, among others, to a demand barrier. I do not share this view. The realization of demand does not cause a more than proportional increase of investments for at least two reasons.

Firstly, a high consumption propensity and orientation at short-term profits will be counteracting the growth of investments. Secondly, an increment of wages will be connected with the emission of "empty money". This may increase the rate of inflation and even trigger hyperinflation. Surpassing a five per cent deficit of the central budget in relation to GDP may cause an economic destabilization. Today, the lowering of the inflation rate is of primary importance for stimulating a greater propensity to invest. Quite naturally, I do not question the importance of a growth-promoting increase of effective demand. However, an increase of incomes not carrying a threat of a higher inflation may take place mainly in the private sector, because a healthy tendency towards maintaining a microeconomic equilibrium can be seen within it. On the other hand, this does not refer to state-owned enterprises and the social welfare sphere. Hence it is so important to speed up the commercialization of state-owned enterprises and their privatization. These remarks support a view about a further polarization of the population's incomes.

As I have already mentioned in the previous point the lowering of living standards is not so pronounced as it might be concluded from statistical data. Although the share of food reaches statistically ca. 60 per cent of the population's expenditures there has also taken place a very significant increase in the equipment of households with consumer durable such as e.g. cars, satellite dishes or colour TV sets. One should agree, however, that this is largely an effect of postponed demand and disposing of savings by the population. This is an argument in favour of an indispensable slow and cautions stimulation of consumer demand.

Consumers have adapted themselves to the market regulation much faster than it could have been expected. It is my opinion that a large part of the society has already forgotten that a hard constraint on the part of supply existed in the process of choice and purchase not so long ago. It could be also added that the differentiation of prices for basic products is much bigger in Poland than in the economically developed countries. A favourable phenomenon is very big intensification of competition, and especially in trade, which is privately owned in over 80 per cent.

The postcommunist societies are much more sensitive to promotion than the population in the EC. Hence, marketing plays an increasingly greater role on these markets and it is very effective. Quite a big role is also played by value added. Naturally, it is a temporary phenomenon, but it accounts for mass sales of low quality Western products, which are attractively packaged.

There is no doubt that it is difficult today to formulate some generalizations concerning differences in behaviours of consumers in the postcommunist countries. Taking into account my society I wish to express an opinion that the process of adaptation and assimilation of behaviours typical for the developed market economies will be proceeding very slowly.

4. Statiscical data

See the following tables (4.1-4.3)























Jerzy Dietl, University of L=dz, Poland


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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